“My company makes remote employees use a program that takes webcam photos of us throughout the day,” wrote one person on r/antiwork, a growing online community dedicated to fighting unfair labor practices and employers. According to one study we’ll examine below, one in three people believe they’re not under surveillance from their employer and 15% don’t even believe such a thing could happen.
Unfortunately, it isn’t so.
Remote work surveillance and employee monitoring apps are exploding in popularity and odds are, it could happen to you too.
Does your boss know what you do when you work from home?
Sadly, as most privacy experts agree, the answer is “yes”. In the great remote work debate, one aspect remains poorly examined: the privacy of workers.
Your company might not know exactly when you decide to step away from Slack to make a cup of coffee but they do have tools to find out mostly everything about your productivity. In other cases, the extent of the surveillance is troubling.
One NYT feature from early 2020 has a worker explaining “how my boss monitors me while I work from home”, explaining what the software called Hubstaff does, from activity tracking through each software on the computer to GPS coordinates logging.
One year later, in 2021, an NBC News report revealed that one of the world’s largest call center companies, Teleperformance, coerced some employees to sign a new contract and allow AI-powered cameras to be installed in their homes. Teleperformance is used by mega-companies like Apple, Amazon and Uber.
Now, more than 30% of companies rely on something that’s called “bossware”.
Bossware apps are exploding in popularity
Aptly nicknamed “bossware”, employee monitoring tools cover almost any activity you perform during remote work.
One company called Teramind not only does instant message monitoring, therefore your employer can read your texts, but they can also alert your employer about inappropriate keywords or topics.
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), most bossware splits into apps that the employee can see or a secret background process that the employee can’t see. The same organization also reports that, unfortunately, most companies making employee monitoring software let the buyers decide if they want to let their employees know about the surveillance.
One app from Interguard “can be silently and remotely installed, so you can conduct covert investigations [of your workers] and bullet-proof evidence gathering without alarming the suspected wrongdoer” – and that was in their own marketing materials.
Can my employer see where I am working from?
In short, yes. Whether your company has a BYOD (bring your own device) or you work on company equipment, seeing your location and activity is easy with most remote work tools.
EFF says that companies that offer software for mobile devices nearly always include location tracking using GPS data and two of them that they analyzed can even let employers secretly turn on the webcam or microphone of their employees.
A follow-up question would be “Do employers have the right to spy on employees?”
Unfortunately, the answer is yes again.
“In general, employees have no legal expectation of privacy in their workplace activities, particularly in their use of company computers. Employers are entitled to utilize reasonable methods such as video surveillance or computer monitoring programs to monitor employee activity on company time. The right to monitor employee activities is not, however, unlimited. For example, while employees do not generally have a right to privacy in office common areas, they do have such a right where such privacy would normally be expected, such as in a bathroom or locker room. The placement of cameras or other surveillance equipment in those areas would likely be an actionable intrusion into employee privacy,” explains this law firm.
Employment contracts can have a clause that mentions monitoring or tracking and in most countries the practice is legal.
How to see if your employer monitors you
To see if your boss knows what you’re doing on a company PC, you have very few options. Most surveillance software is hidden pretty well but you can check to see the background processes on your laptop or PC.
If you have a Windows machine, the Alt + Ctrl + Del keys will open the Task Manager. If you click on the Processes tab, you can see exactly what’s running on your machine and google any suspicious processes.
On MacBook, go to Utilities, and open the Activity Monitor to see any tool that’s showing up as consuming CPU or RAM. A quick web search on the ones you don’t recognize might uncover monitoring software.
Unless instructed otherwise, it could pay off to put tape on your webcam whenever you don’t need it.
While a work from home future seems likely for large numbers of workers around the world, remote work surveillance is quickly becoming a norm, with companies desperate to monitor what employees do during work days.
Unfortunately, the answer is yes again.
Remote work surveillance, a new reality for both work from home and hybrid work environments
According to ExpressVPN’s study done on 2,000 employers and 2,000 employees engaged in remote or hybrid work, remote work surveillance is already an established workplace practice just two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began.
This study shows that most people don’t even know their boss is monitoring their activity. One in three employees don’t believe their employers are actively monitoring their online activities, and 15% didn’t even know that was possible.
But for those who do know their work from home is being monitored, the stress of remote work surveillance is already impacting their mental wellbeing.
The majority (56%) of employees feel stress and anxiety about their employer surveilling their communications. In fact, 41% constantly wonder if they are being watched, and 32% take fewer breaks because of it.
In this landscape, it’s clear that the remote work debate and the future of work from home should also include “privacy” as a main discussion point.